The Gates Revolution

The Gates Revolution

The ghosts of Vietnam are everywhere, as counterinsurgency makes a comeback in the Pentagon budget.


The preliminary Defense Department budget announced by Defense Secretary Robert Gates on April 6 represents the most dramatic shift in US military thinking since the end of the Vietnam War. Gates merely hinted at the magnitude of the proposed changes, claiming only that he seeks to “rebalance” the department’s priorities between conventional and irregular warfare. But the message is clear: from now on, counterinsurgency and low-intensity conflict will be the military’s principal combat missions, while other tasks, such as preparing for an all-out war with a well-equipped adversary, will take a decidedly secondary role.

The budget message does not lay out this shift in broad strategic language. Rather, it is articulated in terms of the weapons systems Gates has chosen to terminate or cancel and those he has chosen to retain or augment. Most media attention has focused on the former–the big-ticket items he rightly says are no longer needed or too costly and “exquisite” to meet the Pentagon’s requirements. These include the F-22 Raptor, a $143 million supersonic jet fighter originally designed to shoot down Soviet aircraft; the DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyer, a $3.3 billion stealth combat vessel; and the Army’s Future Combat System, an ensemble of futuristic tanks and armored vehicles.

The proposed cancellation or termination of these and other multibillion-dollar programs has provoked a firestorm of criticism from lobbyists, promilitary organizations, Congressional hawks and members of Congress whose districts will suffer manufacturing losses if the systems are cut. Major media outlets have fed the flames by portraying Gates’s overhaul as a set of massive spending cuts, even though spending would increase by 4 percent.

As the debate proceeds, the cancellations will no doubt generate most of the Congressional skirmishes and headlines. But far more important from a strategic perspective are the programs Gates wants to add or augment. These include Predator drones, sensor-equipped turboprop planes, conventional helicopters, the littoral combat ship (LCS) and expanded Special Operations capabilities–mostly low-tech systems intended for use in counterinsurgency or low-intensity environments.

These programs are far less costly than the super-sophisticated weapons Gates seeks to eliminate but far more useful, he argues, in the irregular, small-scale operations that US troops are conducting in Iraq and Afghanistan and are likely to encounter in future conflicts. “We must rebalance this department’s programs in order to institutionalize and enhance our capabilities to fight the wars we are in today and the scenarios we are most likely to face in the years ahead,” he declared.

The similarities between Gates’s proposals and the strategy adopted by the Kennedy administration are too great to ignore. Kennedy assumed office at a time when all-out war with the Soviet Union was the military’s primary concern, and he rapidly ordered a shift in focus toward unconventional conflict in the Third World. Subversive insurgency poses a new and growing threat, Kennedy declared at West Point in 1962. “It requires…a whole new kind of strategy, a wholly different kind of force and therefore a new and wholly different kind of military training.”

After the tragedy of Vietnam, officers purged military thinking of its counterinsurgency leanings and refocused on conventional war strategy–a posture seen most conspicuously in the 1991 Gulf War and in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. More recently, under the prodding of Gen. David Petraeus, counterinsurgency has made a comeback. Gates aims to institutionalize that shift and make it, once again, the centerpiece of US strategy. “I want to get that capability”–to fight irregular conflicts–“into the base budgets so that it will continue and we don’t forget, as we did after Vietnam, how to do what we’re doing right now so successfully in both Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said.

The ghosts of Vietnam are everywhere in Gates’s budget request and in his accompanying statements. He wants more helicopters, as Kennedy and Johnson sought during Vietnam. He wants an additional 2,800 Special Operations troops and “more special-forces-optimized lift mobility and refueling aircraft.” The LCS, intended for anti-piracy and counterinsurgency operations in coastal areas, brings to mind the Swift boat operations in the Mekong Delta. Again recalling Vietnam, high priority is to be placed on training and equipping foreign soldiers to engage in counterterror and counterinsurgency operations.

The most immediate requirement for these initiatives, Gates says, is to be found in Afghanistan, where the Obama administration plans to deploy up to 30,000 additional troops. The first increment, 17,000 soldiers, was announced February 17, and thousands more will likely be sent following a review of the war effort this summer. It is clear, though, that Gates is looking beyond Iraq and Afghanistan to a future in which low-intensity wars are the principal arenas in which US forces will be engaged.

Gates has not said where, exactly, he sees troops fighting what could be termed the “next Afghanistans.” A careful review of the strategic literature suggests, however, that officials are worried about the spread of Al Qaeda-linked formations to other countries in Central Asia and to “ungoverned” spaces in Africa. The recent establishment of the US Africa Command (Africom) and the growing presence of Special Operations forces in places like Mali, Chad and Somalia hint at what might be in store.

Gates is too careful to speak in public of such scenarios. But by optimizing capabilities for combat in these settings, he risks inculcating a predisposition to engage in more wars of this type. It is essential, then, that Congress and the public devote as much attention to the strategic implications of Gates’s focus on counterinsurgency as to the economic and jobs implications of eliminating certain big-ticket weapons systems.

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